Paying Attention in a Distracted World: On Walking, Kayaking, and Science

This past week I’ve changed my dog-walking route. Instead of walking up the street, down the forest trail, and finishing the loop on a (pedestrian-unfriendly) section of road, I walk up the street, down the forest trail, turn around and head back the way I came.

In The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, Matthew B. Crawford notes the role of doing new things in helping us pay attention in a world where we’re more likely to be distracted.

When we first start to do something new, we have to pay a lot of attention because we’re still learning how to move our bodies or use our minds to do this new thing. As we continue to practice it, however, our thoughts or motions become more ingrained. Eventually our actions become automatic, and we’re able to let our attention wander away from the task at hand and into other areas of interest.

This is the philosophy behind the role of walking in thinking (whether that’s thinking about science, writing, art, etc.). Because we know how to walk, we don’t have to pay attention to the mechanics of propelling our bodies through the world. So we can allow our minds to wander and generate new ideas or solve particular thorny problems in projects we may be working on.

Walking the usual way on the forest trail gives me plenty of opportunity to let my mind wander. I have a built-in muscle memory that subconsciously reminds me when there are three downhill sections in a row with loose rock to avoid, or where there are tree roots across the trail that I have to step over.

Walking in the opposite direction, however, I still have to pay attention to how I propel my body through space. I don’t have the muscle memory yet to remind me that there are three uphill sections coming up that require me to conserve enough energy to ensure I make it up all three. Ultimately I can daydream on the way there (while remembering to clap every now and then to scare any potential bears away), but have to pay close attention to the trail on the way back.

Crawford also discusses the idea of embodied perception—this idea that we don’t just think with our heads, but with our bodies as well. That we often use ‘tools’ (in his example, a hockey stick) that eventually become an extension of ourselves and our interaction with the world.

I started kayaking a year and a half ago. While I generally enjoy it, I was often nervous at my kayak’s tippy-ness and frustrated by the fact that I could rarely keep it going in a straight line, even with the rudder. I recently got a new kayak, as my husband purchased a damaged one and repaired it. It’s longer and squatter than my old kayak, which means it floats over swells nicely instead of staying perpendicular to them (i.e., less tippy-ness). Because it’s longer, it’s also easier to keep in a straight line, even without using the rudder.

As I learn to kayak, I’m learning how to move my body in tune with the paddle and the boat. The latter become ‘tools’ that enable my interaction with the (in this case) aquatic world. Because I’m still new to it, I have to pay a lot of attention when I’m out on the water. I think about the details of my paddle strokes, my balance in the boat, and particularly about how to get in and out of the kayak without unceremoniously dumping myself into the water.

My goal is to get comfortable enough that I can paddle without thinking about each stroke, and can relax enough to actually turn around and look at things without fear of tipping over. One day I’d even like to do an Eskimo roll. Once I reach that stage, the kayak and paddle should work like an extension of my body—tools that I don’t have to think hard about using because I’ve practiced enough to use them automatically.

Ultimately, Crawford believes that ‘becoming an individual’ requires that we learn new activities in order to keep our attention in the here and now, and that’s easier to do if you undertake activities that keep you embodied in that present moment.

Consider playing on your smartphone or tablet, or watching Netflix—you’re paying very little attention to the here and now, and are definitely disembodied from that present as well.

What are the benefits to paying attention with our minds as well as our bodies?

Well, for one thing, the joy we feel from mastering a new skill. I was particularly pleased with myself yesterday because we went kayaking in a bit of a swell. It wasn’t much for those who are skilled at kayaking, but for a newbie like me it could have been a cause for anxiety. I didn’t feel anxious at all—a sign that I’m starting to improve my kayaking skills.

Another benefit to paying attention both through our minds and bodies is the ability to perceive things we wouldn’t have previously. In kayaking, for example, we might perceive subtle shifts in waves indicating changes in the ocean bed, or observe wildlife that we wouldn’t see from shore. In walking, we might observe changes in the trail that indicate there’s been more horse or ATV traffic, or notice prints indicating a bear or a cougar was out on the trail.

Crawford also notes that we learn not just from doing, but from interactions with others who are skilled in the tasks we’re learning. In walking or kayaking, this could mean reading peoples’ blogs about their outdoor pursuits, or watching YouTube videos that show particular paddling strokes. Alternatively you may take a course, in which the instructor teaches you how best to use your tools (kayak, paddle) to reach your goals (do a paddling trip).

Crawford’s ideas have important implications not just for things we do in our everyday life, but for how we learn to do science.

He argues that conventional Enlightenment wisdom about the individual in society would have them doing science in a vacuum. Quoting extensively from Michael Polanyi, a physical chemist who came to the UK from a Communist Soviet system, Crawford situates the practice of science into this framework of paying attention, being embodied in the world, and learning from interactions with others.

Crawford begins with the idea that learning science involves doing science, whether that’s in a lab or a field setting. New scientists, like new kayakers, have to pay explicit attention to all of the steps required to complete an experiment, as they don’t have the skill to do it more unconsciously. In most cases their attention is embodied by using tools (lab or field equipment such as pipettes or snow tubes) that are an extension of their mental attention.

Crawford also notes that science is also learned from other people, including conversations with your academic supervisor, reading papers in your field, or interacting with colleagues at a conference. He argues that science knowledge is incomplete if you don’t have a mentor to help you understand the context and the scientific community.

This all makes eminent sense to me—and is why I highly recommend Crawford’s book for those who are interested in cognition and attention in our highly distracted age. While his writing is a bit dense, and he would have benefited immensely from the plain language editor, he has a lot of interesting ideas that have implications for the structure and content of our everyday lives.

It’s also been a good kick in the butt to try new things, for those of us who have a bad habit of sticking to routines…

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